UAE’s Rabbi Abadie: 'We are opening doors… slowly things will take shape'

The UAE's Jewish community is slowly taking shape as friendships are forged between the Emirates and Israel.

 Rabbi Elie Abadie (L) with UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Elie Abadie (L) with UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Elie Abadie looks forward to the Jewish Council of the Emirates servicing Jewish communities in the United Arab Emirates as the community grows in the wake of the Abraham Accords.
It has been an exciting and path breaking time for him and the Jewish community in Dubai. Just seven years ago, this community, formed in 2017, was meeting quietly in people’s homes. Even though Jews had been coming to Dubai for decades, there was no formal community. Abadie arrived recently from the US and has been the community’s senior rabbi for the last several months.
Now with Hanukkah concluding, the momentous spotlight on the Jewish community and the thousands of Israelis pouring in over the last weeks, all this has created a whole new landscape.  
Abadie and I spoke by Zoom a week after I came back from Dubai. The community is planning a big bash at the Rixos Hotel on the Palm in Dubai for the end of Hanukkah, overlooking the skyline of Dubai.
The majority of the current Jewish community is in Dubai. “We will service all communities. As this normalization takes place more countries are added to the list of those normalizing and welcoming Jewish tourists and businessmen,” he says.
He has been in touch with the Jewish community of Bahrain, a community that dates back to the mid-19th century. He has high hopes for other countries in the region normalizing relations with Israel as well.  
The UAE has taken major strides to showcase tolerance for Jews in recent years. This culminated in this week’s Hanukkah events. It began years ago as the country sought to highlight its role as a tolerant place for all religions. Modern mosques are being built; a Hindu Temple and soon Jews will have institutions as well. The Jewish faith has been shown in books relating to the Year of Tolerance declared in the Emirates in 2019, and videos from officials show Jews, Christians and Muslims together.  
BUT THE changes in terms of Israelis arriving on FlyDubai flights since November 26 have been major. Abadie is used to change because his life has been shaped by it. “I was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and my parents were refugees from Syria,” he says. His parents left Syria after Jews were forced to flee due to the establishment of Israel. They lived in tranquility in Lebanon until the Palestinian Liberation Organization and its gunmen appeared in the late 1960s.
His father was a rabbi. In one instance, his father’s photo with two other Jews performing a wedding was plastered on mosques and a popular magazine accusing them of being “Zionist agents.” With a brother already in Mexico, Abadie and his family were able to leave. They never had Lebanese citizenship and had been seen as refugees from Syria; now they were refugees in Mexico.
At eighteen, after eight years in Mexico, Abadie decided to study medicine in the US.
“I wanted to study in an environment in which I don’t have to violate Shabbat, because that was the case in Mexico due to exams on Saturdays,” he said. “I went to Yeshiva University, studied to be a rabbi, became a physician and got married and settled.”
He became a popular rabbi and founder of communities, the most recent of which was the Edmund J. Safra synagogue in New York City in 2003.
“I turned it into a congregation and community because there weren’t many Sephardic Jews at the time on the Upper East Side. It is located at East 63rd Street and Fifth Avenue. We had Jews and dignitaries coming from all over the world and it became a central focus of Jews in the Upper East Side.”
Abadi’s friend, Eli Epstein, helped introduce him to the UAE. Epstein had been travelling to Dubai for decades, Abadie says. They went on a heritage trip to Spain and Epstein introduced Abadie to people travelling from the UAE. Abadie and these visitors could converse in Arabic because of his background.  
"Epstein invited me to visit the nascent community here in Dubai over two years ago and I was advising them and in touch with them and also with Rabbi Yehuda Sarna. Finally two or three months ago, they said ‘rabbi, can you come and help us build this community with the new realities of the Abraham Accords? We need someone like you who knows the culture and idiosyncrasies, and has lived in the region.’ I thought for a few days and I said I’d give it a try.”
IT IS a challenge, but Abadie says he loves to build things and has done it all his life. “You need three things to build community; expertise and knowledge, second funds and third, you need acquiescence of the environment: whether the government or the neighborhood,” he said.
He remembers that back when he started the Safra synagogue, he had only seventeen congregants and no minyan (prayer quorum). Soon it was 300 people in a year and a half. Today the funds are being raised for the Dubai community and there is cooperation from the government.
“I have met with government officials and we are opening doors… slowly, slowly things will take shape.” He harkens back to the line from Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come.
The UAE is seven emirates and most Jews are in Dubai. But there may be opportunities to serve those who reside or travel to other areas, such as the capital of Abu Dhabi. “We will be able to help communities develop as they come. It’s a small area and it’s a great area of development.”
There is a lot to do. You need licenses for an institution and to be incorporated. Educational facilities will need to be arranged and kosher food.  “Our duties are to establish a Jewish court or Beit Din and also eventually a mikvah [for ritual immersion], that is part of a Jewish community and we are in the process of trying to build one. Then we will have a Hevrat Kadisha [burial society], for funerals.”
At the same time there are other Jewish communities and leaders in the UAE. The JCE’s President Ross Kriel and Alex Peterfreund, a board member of JCE and the hazzan (cantor), have been key to the active leadership of the community, Abadie says.
In addition, the Jewish Community Center led by Rabbi Levi Duchman is affiliated with Chabad. Solly Wolf is the leader of this second community. “I’ve met and have conducted discussions with Solly Wolf, he is very caring and wonderful. We are looking forward to working together to unite our community,” Abadie says.
THE FLOWERING of Jewish life here is part of a process. “When you have fertile ground, you have people trying to do things, establish themselves and create something because they believe in what they are doing,” says Abadie. People are seeking to have more kosher food for hotels, and there are opportunists and business people with ideas about how to support or build a Jewish community.
"You have Beit Chabad everywhere in the world and we want to bring those institutions under one community umbrella. And we have different departments and places of worship and institutions,” Abadie said. “That is my aim as part of my initiatives: to work together in unison to serve the community at large and tourists and businesspeople in their areas. We have seen thousands coming. So that is basically what we are planning.”
With people moving to Dubai, the community may grow and have more Hebrew speakers from Israel. The rabbi says that two families came this week from the US and Europe. “We are going to have several types of moves to the UAE: some who are going to be leaving their countries for comfort reasons, leaving Europe due to antisemitism. Most of them have origins from North Africa, either Morocco, Libya, Tunisia or Algiers – and they will feel comfortable here going back to their roots.”
People want a safe and stable place – and the UAE offers that. Business people are flocking in as well. And the tourists will come by the thousands. “There is going to be a large, different segment of population coming for different reasons.”